Unconventional Love Stories series: ‘The Piano’

“The Piano”: Ada , Baines and the piano

I first saw bits and pieces of Jane Campion’s “The Piano” when I was very young, maybe ten or eleven. I remember watching the film and wondering, “Why does this man have tattoos on his face?” and “Why is he dusting this piano with his shirt….in the nude?” I recently watched the film in its entirety, and my goodness—it still deserves every bit of praise it received when it was first released in 1993. “The Piano’s” themes, visual beauty and dark humor (yes, it’s funny!) are not in the least bit dated. But I digress. Back to the bizarre love triangle.

Ada, the mute (by choice), austere and sometimes irascible central character, is in love with her piano. Arriving to New Zealand from her native Scotland, she is no less than a mail-order bride for Stewart, a self-conscious and mundane plantation owner. Baines, Stewart’s friend and sometimes business partner, is at once intrigued and mystified by Ada. Like Ada, Baines too is an outsider; a former Scotland native, he has tribal Maori tattoo markings on his face and has adapted to the Maori culture. After Baines sees Ada literally come alive with joy and passion while playing her piano, he views the piano itself as an opportunity to get closer to Ada. Baines buys the piano and uses it as a contrivance—a pimp, if you will—to bring him and Ada together, as she reluctantly agrees to give him piano lessons at his home. To Ada’s surprise, Baines has no interest in playing himself, and only wants to watch her play. Unable to control his arousal during one of the first “lessons,”  Baines abruptly kisses Ada’s neck while she is playing and reveals to Ada that there are things  he’d “like to do” to her while she plays. Ada is shocked and disgusted, until Baines asks her if she knows how to bargain. He proposes that Ada  “earn” her piano back from him, key by (black) key; that is, each erotic favor Ada allows him is worth the amount of black keys she feels is appropriate.  Caressing her arm while she plays is worth two keys; lying together, naked, is worth ten keys—you get the idea.

I was quite surprised at this plot development because I already knew that Ada and Baines were the romantic center of the film, and I did not expect Baines to force her into something close to prostitution as a prelude to their romance. Yet, as brutish and crude as Baines’ initial “bargain” may appear, his actual erotic advances towards Ada are surprisingly cautious and even tender. During one lesson, Baines asks Ada to lift her skirt higher and higher as he lies on his back underneath the piano bench for an unimpeded view. But instead of the expected groping, his eyes follow her feet as they press on the pedals, and his fingers trace a tiny circle of exposed skin on her leg from a hole in her stocking. Ada, at first prude and aloof towards Baines, slowly becomes intrigued and obsessed with his uncouth and reckless romanticism. Yes, she wants her piano back, but she eventually wants him as well—an eccentric courtship for two very eccentric lovers.

This is a stunning scene which illustrates the unique love triangle between Ada, Baines and the piano. Ada plays the piano while Baines rests his hands on it, feeling its vibrations.  Baines then stares longingly at the  player-less piano, envisioning Ada’s undulating form as it surges and swells over the keys. Unfortunately, the clip ends just before he cleans the piano in the nude with his shirt.

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About Vanessa Graniello

Vanessa's film articles and reviews have appeared in The Moving Arts Film Journal, The Alternative Film Guide, and the newsletter for the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, NY. She is currently an adjunct lecturer in the English Department at St. Joseph's College in Patchogue, NY. View all posts by Vanessa Graniello

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